The Insider’s Perspective series brings insight from higher ed professionals to the Eduventures Research Wake-Up Call. Opinions expressed within Insider Perspective posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Eduventures Research or NRCCUA.
As Facebook faces mounting criticism, will it impact how high school students engage with colleges and universities through social media in the admissions process?
Probably not. The most recent Eduventures data indicates that student use of social media in college search continues to increase. Likewise, more than two thirds of respondents to the 2017 Survey of Admitted Students found social media useful or extremely useful in their college search process, nearly double the number in 2015.
So if the recent Facebook problems have you reevaluating your presence on this platform, you are likely asking the wrong question. What you should really be asking is: How will my school meet the growing demand for broader engagement on social media?
Well before the recent headlines, use of Facebook was already declining among high school students, and there is every reason to believe that trend will continue. NRCCUA data from prospective sophomores, juniors, and seniors confirms the clear decline in the use of Facebook, and rising use of Snapchat and other platforms, with each descending class year (Figure 1).
Additionally, preliminary data from Eduventures survey of prospective students’ digital behaviors and expectations, in the field right now, shows that only 33% of all high school students say they use Facebook daily, compared to 70% who say they use Snapchat daily. If these early results hold, this is a decline of more than 10% in daily use of Facebook in just one year.
Yet despite these shifts, the Survey of Admitted Students shows that students continue to identify Facebook as the most useful social media tool for learning about college. So what is driving this inconsistency?
Although Facebook is the top student social media platform for college information, it is now followed closely by the many competing social media platforms. While Snapchat lags behind, students report its use for college admissions information is increasing rapidly.
Perhaps, as the NRCCUA and mStoner report Mythbusting Enrollment Marketing suggests, “teens are not relying on Snapchat for college exploration because they don’t see many colleges being active on the platform.” Based on these responses, it seems that colleges and universities that are not testing their marketing across multiple social media platforms will find themselves behind the curve.
That being said, it is critically important to think carefully about your approach to Instagram and Snapchat. Like Facebook before we oldsters opted in, those platforms are viewed as a more personal medium. When pitching more aggressive digital media investments, you might remind skeptics that it was only a few years ago that colleges being active on Facebook was considered risky, even creepy. Today it is unimaginable that a college would not maintain some reasonable level of Facebook presence—and that will likely soon be true for these other social media as well.
Of course, you need to be protective of your brand and consider what message your online engagement and advertising is sending about your institution, but the risk of advertising on social media seems to be decreasing. While some higher education enrollment professionals and enrollment marketers remain wary, Eduventures research shows that students are not: Less than 2% would call it “creepy,” and just another 8% feels colleges and universities should stay off social media.
I tested this with a carefully constructed focus group of one college-bound (hopefully) 16-year-old, my son. Asking him to respond to the stories about Facebook and colleges reaching out on social media, he said, “I’m pretty sure everyone already knows that anything you put online is being used by someone to sell you something. It’s way creepier when I get a pile of nearly identical mailings to our home address with letters pretending to know a lot of stuff about me.” (Admittedly, he may be somewhat over-informed about this process.)
So, will the latest concerns over data cause a further backlash? Perhaps we will continue to see teen use of Facebook erode, but that trend was already underway. Generally the digital natives are going to stay online, and expect online engagement. We already mine data to personalize materials sent through email and snail mail; students are unlikely to be put off by institutions that put just as much thought, care, and strategic effort into online engagement.
Perhaps there may even be new opportunities to use these data mining tools to increase enrollment diversity and inclusivity by seeking students who might otherwise not be considering our institutions, rather than using them to replicate the applicants we are already most likely to receive.